The American League East race is over. On Thursday night, the Yankees clinched the division by defeating the Angels to capture their first title since 2012. A loss on Wednesday and a Rays win against the Dodgers put the champagne briefly on ice, but by securing the team’s 100th win of the year, New York is postseason-bound all the same.
With eight games to go and 100 wins to their credit, it’s possible that the Yankees will finish with their most victories in a season since the 1998 club piled up a then-MLB record 114 en route to a perfect postseason and World Series. This year’s edition isn’t quite as good as that historic squad, but New York will enter this October as a strong bet to capture a 28th championship. Here’s the case for why the Yankees have what it takes to hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy.
1. The Lineup
It starts with the offense, one of the best in baseball. Despite a rash of injuries that left holes up and down the lineup, the Yankees lead the majors in runs scored and OPS+ while ranking second in homers (just behind the Twins), on-base percentage and wRC+, and third in slugging percentage and fWAR. Seven Yankees have hit 20 or more home runs this season, led by Gleyber Torres with 38. That first stat is mind-boggling even with the juiced ball and is positively wacky when you realize that, due to time missed with injury, Giancarlo Stanton (38 homers last year) and Didi Gregorius (27) have combined for just 17 this year.
As noted, injuries have made hash of the Yankees’ starting nine. Stanton (who came off the injured list on Wednesday to make his first appearance since June 25 and has played in just 10 games this season), Gregorius, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Luke Voit, Aaron Hicks and midseason acquisition Edwin Encarnacion have all missed huge stretches of time, while Miguel Andujar, Troy Tulowitzki and Greg Bird were sidelined for good almost from the start. That put a ton of weight on the reserves to step up, and step up they have. Gio Urshela, a light-hitting utility infielder his entire career, leads the team in OPS+; DJ LeMahieu, signed as a multi-position backup, is No. 1 in bWAR; Triple A fill-ins like Mike Tauchman, Cameron Maybin and Mike Ford all chipped in positively. Perhaps the wildest stat of the Yankees’ season is that, despite losing all those big names to sprains, strains and fractures, they have just two players who’ve posted an OPS+ of 100 or worse in 100 or more plate appearances: Gregorius and backup catcher Austin Romine. That’s tied with the Twins for the fewest in the majors.
The Yankees’ lineup is devoid of weak spots, and Stanton’s return should help shore things up further. But even as the season winds down, the injuries haven’t stopped. Sanchez and Encarnacion are currently sidelined, and the outfield depth has been cut dramatically with Hicks and Tauchman both done for the year and Maybin fighting a nagging wrist issue. Should Sanchez and Encarnacion return healthy and hale, though, manager Aaron Boone will have a bevy of lineup options, particularly in a crowded infield, where he’ll have to find time for six players (Encarnacion, Voit, LeMahieu, Gregorius, Urshela and Torres) at five positions (including the designated hitter). That won’t be an easy calculus, but it speaks to how many weapons he has at his disposal.
2. The Bullpen
That lineup alone is point enough in New York’s favor, but the advantages don’t stop there. Boone’s bullpen is loaded with hard throwers who rack up whiffs: Yankees relievers have the third-highest strikeout rate and second-highest average fastball velocity in the AL.
The relief corps’ overall numbers are dragged down by the sheer number of innings given to lesser options asked to eat innings to make up for a thin and injury-stricken rotation. But the top choices are all elite: Aroldis Chapman, Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton and Tommy Kahnle have combined for 236 1/3 innings and just 61 earned runs—a 2.32 ERA—along with 300 strikeouts. Walks have been an issue for Chapman, Ottavino and Britton, but all will effectively shorten a game, particularly given the regular off days during the postseason. Helping out will be Chad Green, who was awful early in the year, went down to Triple A, and has been lights out since returning (a 2.83 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 57 1/3 innings), and who can soak up multiple innings if needed.
New York will feel the loss of Dellin Betances, who suffered a torn Achilles in his first and only appearance of the season on Sunday after missing most of the year with arm trouble. But this group is still plenty good without him, and is likely the best relief unit of any team that’ll be playing this postseason.
3. The return of Luis Severino and a new pitching strategy
After a quiet trade deadline despite a ragged rotation, the assumption was that the Yankees were going to ride their bullpen hard in the playoffs and hope that reinforcements from within the organization—namely Betances and Severino—could provide a late boost. That won’t be the case with the former, but the latter returned to the mound on Tuesday after missing all year with injury looking like his old self. Though limited to four innings, Severino struck out four, allowed just four baserunners, and averaged 96.6 mph with his four-seamer, touching 98.
Unfortunately for Severino, with just a week left in the season, he’s unlikely to be able to build enough stamina to go more than five innings in a game. But for the Yankees, that limit may have been imposed regardless of health. As SI’s Tom Verducci reported on Monday, New York plans on piggybacking its starters throughout October, with the exception of James Paxton (who has a 1.48 ERA in his last five starts).
Given how mediocre the Yankees’ rotation has been overall (a 4.56 ERA) and how horrible they’ve been facing a lineup a third time (a 7.17 ERA), it’s no surprise that the team would rather stay away from having anyone but Paxton try to push into or past the sixth inning, particularly given how good the bullpen is. It’s far more sensible to let some combination of Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ and possibly Sabathia roll through a lineup once or twice, then hand it off to another starter or the bullpen. Boone could even create some left-right mismatches by pairing, say, Tanaka and Happ or Severino and Sabathia.
That plan may seem anathema to anyone with a yearning for the playoff baseball of old, when starters routinely went seven-plus and refused to give up the ball. But for the Yankees, it’s a strategy that could help them overcome what’s been their biggest weakness, and the return of Severino gives Boone his best option yet to get through the early innings and get the ball to the shutdown bullpen.